Dumb Questions Good: Science Journalists, Ask About the Basics

Cassandra Willyard's smart advice for technical writers (or anyone, for that matter)

The Hubble Space Telescope as it was deployed from the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990 (NASA)

Science writer Cassandra Willyard has an inspiring piece up at The Last Word on Nothing about the moment, seven years ago, when she realized that the Hubble Telescope was ... drumroll ... in space. She was in grad school, listening to a talk by one Dr. Astronomer, when, as she puts it:

... it slowly dawned on me that this telescope he was talking about, this Hubble, is in space. My mind was officially blown. We put a goddamn telescope in SPACE! Holy. Effing. News peg.

I soon realized, of course, that my hook was more than 15 years old.

But Willyard's story isn't just about catching up to the news of the Hubble's off-Earth location a few years late. From that single aha moment, she reels out a constructive philosophy of learning and writing. She writes:

My Hubble moments made me doubt myself. Everything I thought I knew became suspect. And everything I didn't know became another potential Hubble. On the phone with scientists, I tried to avoid asking too many questions. If they said something I didn't understand, I would "mmm-hmm" like I did. I've often heard teachers say, "there's no such thing as a dumb question," but that's not really true. You don't want to be the science writer who asks a famous astronomer, "So are you telling me that there's a telescope in space?!"

But the less I asked scientists to explain, the less I understood. And the less I understood, the less I could explain to the reader.

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Willyard has decided to "embrace [her] Hubble moments." But that's not easy. How do we screw up the courage to ask a scientist something that might be patently obvious to them? (For the record, I have done this many times, for example, here, when I learned why telescope images of stars show an unnatural twinkle, or here, when I learned how scientists send copies of a gene. Hint: in the mail.)

I think for me the thing to bear in mind is that if you don't know something, other people don't know it too. The Internet is a big place with lots of readers, and knowledge is unevenly distributed. In an interview with Overmatter, Alexis recently spoke about relying on his nose for what's interesting, figuring that if he finds something interesting, he won't be alone. He said:

Follow your own curiosity and say the most interesting stuff first. There is this weird idea of a "general reader," who reads the New York Times and is equally interested in about 200 things (politics, peace in the middle east, pie, &c). I don't think such people exist. And if they do, they are too busy reading the New York Times to read whatever you're writing.

So forget that hypothetical reader and write about the things that are most interesting to you. Then, make it your mission to explain to readers why they should care about this thing you find interesting.

So call this the Willyard extension of the Alexis principle: Trust that you're not the last to know. If it's news to you, it'll be news to someone else too. You'll learn more, ask better questions, and write better stories.

And also, guys, in case you missed it: The Hubble telescope is in space. "And," as Willyard writes, "that's pretty damn wonderful whether you're hearing it for the first time or the fiftieth."